Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lots of Rain But Little Water

Freetown is one of the wettest capital cities in the world and yet even in the midst of heavy downpours its taps are often dry.

The result is that many neighbourhoods have no piped water at all and women and children must roam the streets with buckets on their heads and in their hands looking for water.

Many residents dig wells in swampy areas or collect water from polluted streams and rivers. Drinking that water often makes people sick.

The main reason for the lack of water in the taps is that the surrounding dams are too small, the chief engineer of the city's water company, known as Guma Valley, Awoonor Williams told IRIN. "We even have to ration water in the rainy season to ensure there is something in reserve when it's dry," he said.

The water company's infrastructure is so decrepit that it provides less than 60 percent of the city's water needs, he said. It is also illogical. The two main dams supplying Freetown, Guma Dam and Congo Dam, as well as a smaller one in the town of Regent, are all situated in the west end of the city while the bulk of the population live in the east.

One dam in the east, Mamba Ridge, cannot hold more than 600,000 gallons, Williams said. "The cost of maintaining such a small dam is not worth it. Plus to pump water you need power from the national power authority and in Freetown there is almost a perpetual blackout."

As it stands the city of 1.5 million people needs about 35 million gallons of water a day but the water company only has the capacity to pump 23 million gallons, Williams said.

Of that, only 4 million gallons goes to the eastern districts, he added.

In the dry season, when the level of the dams goes down, the water company only pumps 19 million gallons a day into the city.

Much of the water that is pumped goes to waste. Many of the city's pipes are broken leaving water to leak into the ground.

"Our distribution system is aging and badly needs replacement and repairs," the water company's public relations officer Joseph Musa told IRIN. Williams said there have been few major repairs made on the system since the end of the colonial era in 1961.

A new era

Sierra Leone's government, which was elected in September, says improving Freetown's water supply is one of its top priorities. "My government will seek out funding to increase the capacity of the dam as well as improving the distribution system in order to ensure adequate water supply to all areas of the city," Sierra Leone's new President Ernest Bai Koroma said on 5 October in a speech at the opening of parliament.

But the task will be daunting.

The original dam at Guma was constructed at Sierra Leone's independence in 1961 when the city's population was 300,000. Today the number of people living in Freetown and its environs exceeds 1.5 million.

Another reservoir, Congo Dam, was built in 1979 but it has not kept pace. The population grew exponentially particularly in the 1990s because of the civil war, Musa, the public relations officer, said. "A very large influx of people into Freetown overwhelmed the capacity of the company to serve the city".

But population growth is only part of the story. Many parts of Freetown, particularly in the east, have never had running water.

Finding funds

The experts say the basic reason the water company has been incapable of building and maintaining the water system is because it has been unable to turn a profit. A tariff increase was implemented in January 2004 of between 30 to 40 percent but it had little impact as the company still only collected 30 percent of its bills in 2005.

Research conducted in 2000 by the engineering department of the University of Sierra Leone established that the national water company does not function because of low levels of cost recovery and high levels of misappropriated funds.

Such charges of corruption have been widespread. In May 2005, the country's Anti Corruption Commission investigated the company's general manager Justin Musa about the disappearance of two billion leone ($677,000) allocated by the government for improving services, although the commission dropped its investigation after Musa left the country.

Corruption has trickled down to all levels of the company, according to Festus Minah, president of the Civil Society Movement of Sierra Leone. One example he cited was the water company's mobile tankers which sell water illegally at exorbitant fees to the few citizens who can afford to pay.

In 2003, Sierra Leone's Accountant General Office found that as a result of unpaid bills and misappropriation, "the company incurred an operating loss of $1.5 million, [although this was only] equivalent to almost 40 per cent of sales revenue".

The company also lost water and money because many residents connect to the water supply illegally. "This places a considerable burden on the supply capacity of the system while providing no revenue to the company", Musa, the water company spokesman, told IRIN.

But the biggest single non-paying customer is the government. Staff at the billing section of the company told IRIN that the government owes the company nearly $2 million.


Musa said the company has embarked on a drive to disconnect delinquent government offices. "[It has been difficult] not receiving subvention from the government and we want to maintain a good service," he said.

In 2005 the World Bank's International Development Association lent $2.6 to the water company to design and implement a reform programme that included replacing pipes, providing chemical treatment to the water and installing meters to increase revenue. "The aim is to re-orient the company towards a commercial base through the implementation of a series of reforms," a World Bank official in Freetown told on the condition of anonymity.

Also a $36 million urban water project to transfer more water to the east of the city started in December 2006. "We will spend about 18 months doing excavation and distribution in the east," Williams, the water company's chief engineer said. "At the end of the project, we hope to take water to about 500,000 new consumers in the east."

But Williams remains pessimistic. "The impact will be minimal because the water sources will never sustain the demand unless a new source is developed," he said.

The answer according to Williams is to build a new dam at the river near Grafton in the far east of the city that would provide water for Freetown's growing urban population there. But a feasibility study carried out by the British consulting firm Howard Humphrey estimated the cost of that dam to be $300 million, Williams said.

That is a price that no donor or investor is so far willing to pay.

allAfrica.com: Sierra Leone: Lots of Rain But Little Water (Page 1 of 2)